Gender Instruction in the Tales for Children by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s tales for and about children arose out of cultural constrictions formulated by a strict adherence and obedience to the Puritan values embedded in New England history. At the time she wrote these stories, New England was experiencing a population decline fueled by massive changes in industry and farming, and the effects of war. With young, industrious men pouring out of rural New England, Freeman concentrated on the women and the weak men who were left behind. Role models for boys were hard to find, and respectable mates for girls were few. Consequently, the lines dividing gender roles got blurred in Freeman’s world, and she set out to redraw the lines by redefining the roles of men and women for children. This text not only discusses the impact of such cultural and historical forces on gender in her writing, but it also categorizes both collected and uncollected tales by grouping together the products of Freeman’s gender instruction.


“Karl Terryberry’s analysis of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s fiction written for and about children is sure to prompt a long-overdue examination of this important yet previously neglected body of her work. Instead of focussing on such frequently-anthologized stories as ‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’” and ‘A New England Nun,’ Terryberry analyzes numerous intriguing works by Freeman that have never before been written about. In doing so, he simultaneously reveals another side to Freeman’s personality and broadens the critical conversation about the ‘cultural work’ her fictions performed in the late nineteenth century. Terryberry’s thesis goes against the current critical consensus. . . . he argues that in her fictions for and about children, Freeman created mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, and spinsters who served as surrogate representatives of their patriarchal culture and encouraged young girls to conform to societal expectations. These women also . . . often turned young boys into weak, androgynous figures. Those characters who rebelled against societal expectations, he contends, were harshly and swiftly punished, sending the message that young girls especially should be submissive, value themselves according to how others see them, and become good housekeepers and wives. Further more, Terryberry brings to light a number of children’s stories Freeman wrote that concerned African Americans and Native Americans. . . . these stories will particularly interest those scholars concerned with the role that regionalist fiction playing in late nineteenth-century American cultural politics. Overall, Gender Instruction . . . is a scholarly work that should be welcomed by those who wish to gain a fuller, more complex understanding of Freeman herself and of her narrative techniques.” – Charles Johanningsmeier

“Karl Terryberry’s comprehensive study of what he rightly claims is a foundational aspect of Freeman’s work fills a major gap in the scholarship dealing with a writer who regrettably has not yet enjoyed the revival of interest that her contemporaries Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman have. . . . Terryberry shows how in her stories Freeman both perpetuated and resisted sexual stereotypes (most notably that of the spinster). . . The up-to-date bibliography . . . suggest that the Freeman revival has already begun, making Terryberry’s study all the more timely – an important addition to the growing body of Freeman scholarship and to gender and children’s studies as well.” – Robert A. Morace

Table of Contents

Table of contents:
Preface; Foreword; Introduction
1. Stories for Adolescent Women: Spinsters Preparing Girls for Marriage
2. Freeman’s Folk and Fairy Tales: Submissive Mothers, Fathers, and Idealized States of Motherhood
3. Ethnic Notions in the Stories For and About Children
4. Defiant and Obedient Children and the Cult of True Womanhood
5. Domineering Women: Stepmothers, Grandmothers, Spinsters, and Witch-women
6. Yearning to Be Feminine: The Males of Freeman’s Stories for Adolescents
7. Gender Identity in Boys: The Occasional Stories
Conclusion; Selected Bibliography; Bibliography of Secondary

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